Return to Annual Homestead Declarations
Vermont funds its educational system through a property tax system. The “education tax” is imposed on all homestead and nonresidential property, but at differing rates. The basis for classifying a particular property a homestead (and thus being taxed at a lower rate) is dependent upon the owner filing a “homestead declaration” with the Vermont Department of Taxes.
Effective January 1, 2013, property owners in Vermont will again have to file an annual homestead declaration in order to have their property classified as a homestead for purposes of the statewide education tax. This is actually a return to the system that existed up until 2010, when the Department of Taxes stopped requiring an annual declaration. A homestead declaration filed in 2010 remained valid until the property was sold, the property was no longer the owner’s primary residence or the owner was no longer domiciled in Vermont. When this happened the property owner was expected to file a homestead declaration withdrawal with the Department of Taxes.
The goal was to relieve property owners from having to remember to file the declaration each year. As it turns out, however, property owners are regularly forgetting to file the withdrawal which has apparently caused all kinds of record keeping problems for the Department of Taxes. In response, the Department has decided that a return to an annual filing requirement is in order.
A “homestead” property is statutorily defined as the principal dwelling and parcel of land surrounding the dwelling, owned and occupied by a resident individual as the individual’s domicile. An individual can only have one “homestead”; second homes and camps are generally not considered homesteads. (Camps can qualify only if it is the owner’s principal residence.) Although Vermont law does not require a particular number of days that an individual must occupy the dwelling to qualify as homestead, mere ownership and spending a lot of time at the property is not enough to qualify for homestead status. The individual must be domiciled in Vermont and the house must be occupied as the individual’s principal dwelling. Spouses and civil union partners who own and occupy a residence together need to file only one homestead declaration.
The necessary form, and more information about homestead declarations, can be found at: www.state.vt.us/tax
In the past few weeks merchants have been receiving a “Notice of Class Action Settlement” related to a lawsuit against Visa, MasterCard and numerous banks. The purpose of the Notice is to provide information about the law suit and the proposed settlement to members of the “class.” The Notice encompasses 27 pages and can be overwhelming to the non-lawyer reader. Because it outlines a) how members of the class may be entitled to cash payments from Visa and MasterCard and b) certain rule changes concerning surcharges for accepting these cards, the Notice should not be simply tossed in the trash.
The case, titled In Re Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation has on going in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York, for the past seven years. Plaintiffs brought the case on behalf of merchants who accept Visa and MasterCard and include Payless Shoes, Parkway Corp. and Leon’s Transmission Service, Inc. They claimed that MasterCard, Visa and approximately 40 member banks violated federal antitrust laws by conspiring together set interchange fees (fees typically paid by merchants for accepting Visa and MasterCards) and imposed and enforced rules that limited merchants’ ability to steer customers into other payment methods. It is the Plaintiffs’ argument that such conduct forced merchants to pay excessive fees for accepting MasterCard and Visa cards.
Class action lawsuits are used when a large number of plaintiffs have claims or when claims are being made against a large number of defendants. Usually the plaintiffs or defendants are located in multiple states. The plaintiffs bring suit on behalf of a proposed class of plaintiffs. For the case to move forward as a class action the court must agree that the members of the proposed class have suffered a common injury or injuries, typically resulting from an action on the part of a business or a particular product defect or policy that applied to all proposed class members in a typical manner. The court must also be convinced that the initial plaintiffs have t he capacity and resources necessary to represent the class as a whole. If the court agrees, the class is certified and the initial plaintiffs are authorized by the court to act on behalf of all members of the class.
The initial plaintiffs are required, however, to provide all prospective members of the class notice of their individual rights throughout the case. One particularly important right afforded prospective class members is the right to “opt out” of the class action and bring their own lawsuits against the same defendants. Typically, if a prospective class member does not affirmatively opt out of the class they will be bound by the results of the class action lawsuit. If someone does opt out, however, they will be bound by the results of their independent lawsuit. You cannot opt out of a class action and then opt back in if your individual case is not successful.
You received the Notice because…?
The parties have, after seven years of extensive litigation (more than 50 million pages of documents were reviewed and over 400 witnesses were deposed) decided that a settlement is in the best interests of both the class and the defendants. A settlement does not mean that Visa and MasterCard admit any wrong doing. Settling the case means the defendants avoid the risk of a judgment that they must pay more than the settled amount; plaintiffs avoid the risk of a judgment for less money. The settlement has not yet been approved by the court. Before that court will decide whether to accept the settlement the members of the class must be notified of their rights under the proposed settlement and given the option to opt out.
The records of Visa, Mastercard and the bank defendants show that you are probably a person, business or other entity that accepted Visa-Branded cards and/or MasterCard branded cards in the United States anytime from January 1, 2004 through November 28, 2012. This makes you a member of the class, if you decide not to opt out.
What are the benefits to the class from the settlement?
The settlement provides two categories of benefits to class members: 1) a cash settlement and 2) changes in the rules and practices Visa and MasterCard can impose and enforce on class members who continue to accept Visa and/or MasterCard.
The cash benefit portion of the proposed settlement requires Visa, MasterCard and defendant banks to establish two funds from which class members may be paid. Combined, the two funds total just over seven billion dollars. These funds will be used to pay money awards directly to class members, pay for the cost of administering the settlement (if approved by the court) and to cover attorney’s fees and expenses. A portion of the funds (approximately $1.5 billion dollars) will be held back to cover claims of merchants who chose to opt out of the settlement and proceed in court with individual claims.
The expectation is that merchants will receive an amount equal to actual or estimated interchange fees paid on Visa and MasterCard transactions for the period of January 1, 2004 through November 28, 2012. The interchange fund provides payment (equal to 1/10 of 1% of credit card transaction volume) to merchants who accept Visa and MasterCard during an eight month period starting June 29, 2013.
The actual amount received, however, will be affected by the total value of all valid claims filed, costs of administration and attorney’s fees and expenses approved by the court. Details of how claims will be calculated are expected to be available as of April 11, 2013.
The rule changes, if approved by the Court, will become effective no later than January 27, 2013. Under the new rules, merchants will be able to charge an extra fee to customers who use Visa or MasterCard branded credit cards, may offer discounts at the point of sale to customers who do not pay with MasterCard or Visa. Merchants who operate under different trade names at more than one location will no longer be required to accept MasterCard and Visa at all of those locations. (If operating under one trade name the rule will still be that Visa and MasterCard must be accepted at all locations or none.) Merchants will still be allowed to set a $10 minimum purchase for Visa and MasterCard.
How Do you make a claim?
The Court first has to approve the proposed settlement. If approved, you will eventually have to file a valid claim in order to get payment from the settlement. If you have not opted out of the settlement the claim form will be mailed to you. It will also be available at www.PaymentCardSettlment.com. Class members with more than one location or franchise may fill out (but are not required to) a pre-registration form which is available at the website.
A “Fairness Hearing” at which the Court will hear arguments as to why the proposed settlement is or is not fair is scheduled for September 12, 2013. How long it will take the Court to decide whether or not to accept the proposed settlement is unknown. The result is that it will be several months before a claim form will be available. In the meantime it is advisable for merchants to pull together information that supports the amount of their claim.
What if I don’t like the proposed settlement?
You have two options: 1) you can object to the settlement and 2) you can opt out.
To object to the settlement you must file a Statement of Objections with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. A copy of your statement must also be sent to counsel for both the plaintiffs and the defendants. Your statement must ne postmarked no later than May 28, 2013. Refer to pages 12 and 13 of the Notice for additional information.
How do you opt out?
You can only opt out of the cash settlement class. The proposed rule changes, if accepted by the court, cannot be opted out of and will apply to all merchants accepting MasterCard and Visa branded cards.
To opt out you must send a letter to the address specified in the Notice. First class mail is acceptable; you cannot opt out by phone, fax, email or online. You should keep a copy of your letter for your records. The letter must provide identifying information about the merchant (including the merchant’s taxpayer i.d. number), specifically state that you wish to opt out of the “cash settlement class in the case called In Re Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation.” Refer to the Notice (pages 11 and 12 for the information that must be included in your opt out letter.)
Your letter must be postmarked no later than May 28, 2013. If your letter is postmarked after that date it will be considered invalid. You will be bound by the terms of the settlement but you will also remain a member of the Cash Settlement Class entitled to payment. If you file your opt out letter on time you will not be eligible for payment under the terms of the class. You then have the right to bring claims against the Defendants on an individual basis.
What if you do nothing?
If you don’t file a claim form, object to the settlement or opt out you will not receive payment. You will be bound, however, by the terms of the cash settlement. All merchants, whether they file a claim, object or opt out will be bound by the proposed rule changes, assuming the court approves the settlement.
Where can I get more information?
Contact information, copies of the proposed settlement and a list of important dates can be found at www.PaymentCardSettlement.com
Purchasing a motor vehicle is one of the largest and most important purchases consumers make. Most of us, however, have only a basic understanding of how a car operates or how to keep it in good working condition. When we purchase a vehicle (particularly a used vehicle) or bring it in for repair we find it necessary to put our trust in someone else. Trust that the car we are buying wasn’t damaged in a previous accident, has an accurate odometer reading, and trust that is in good operating condition. Trust that the repairs made were necessary in the first place, and that the repair will actually fix the problem.
There are some basic steps consumers can take to protect themselves when it comes to purchasing a vehicle; Read and understand the financing contract before signing it; read and understand any applicable warranty; know the seller and their reputation; take the vehicle to a mechanic of your own choosing for an inspection; thoroughly investigate the vehicle history. In Vermont there is no time period for returning a vehicle if you change your mind after you signed the purchase contract.
When it comes to car repairs, a consumer can also take a few proactive steps to protect themselves: know the mechanic and, perhaps most importantly, get the repair estimate in writing. There is no law in Vermont that requires a mechanic to stick to a quoted price if it’s not set out in a signed contract. If you are authorizing the garage to only make specific repairs, put it in writing. Ask about parts (will they be new or used) and labor costs- and have it put in writing.
Taking these few simple steps can often prevent problems down the road. But there may come a time when you are convinced that either a) the car you just purchased is a “lemon” or b) the mechanic is charging you for repairs that aren’t fixing the problem or don’t seem related to the problem in the first place. In such cases understanding your rights under Vermont’s “Lemon Laws” can help you save time and money.
“The New Motor Vehicle Arbitration Act”- aka Vermont’s “Lemon Law”
It’s important to know that the only “lemon law” on Vermont’s books applies to “new motor vehicles” which are defined as “a passenger motor vehicle which has been sold to a new motor vehicle dealer or motor vehicle lessor by a manufacturer and which has not been used for other than demonstration purposes and on which the original title has not been issued from the new motor vehicle dealer other than to a motor vehicle lessor.” The law generally does not cover consumers who purchase a used vehicle, whether from a licensed dealer or in a private transaction. (Alternative options available to buyers of used cars are discussed below.) Also excluded from the “lemon law” are tractors, motorized highway building equipment, road-making appliances, snowmobiles, motorcycles, mopeds, or the living portion of recreation vehicles, or trucks with a gross vehicle weight over 10,000 pounds.
Vermont’s lemon law requires that all new vehicles sold or leased in the state conform to applicable warranties. The obligation to make sure that the vehicle conforms to warranties rests on the manufacturer, not the dealer. If the consumer notifies the manufacturer or its agent (the dealership) of a nonconformity that substantially impairs the use, market value or safety of the vehicle then the manufacturer is legally obligated to make whatever repairs are necessary. (The manufacturer can delegate responsibility for the actual repairs to the dealer, but ultimately it is the manufacturer who pays for the cost of repairs.) The law further requires the manufacturer to give the consumer a written a) repair order b) summary of the consumer’s complaint and c) an itemized statement of all work done to repair the vehicle.
In many cases the first attempt to repair the vehicle will correct the defect. But what happens when multiple repairs are attempted and the defect is still not fixed? That’s where the “arbitration” part of Vermont’s “New Motor Vehicle Arbitration” law comes into play. If, after three attempts to repair the vehicle the problem is still not fixed or the vehicle (after one or more repair attempts) is out of service for 30 or more calendar days, then the consumer has the right to choose between a) the dispute mechanism set out in the manufacturer’s warranty (typically arbitration or mediation before a third party neutral chosen by the manufacturer) or b) the Vermont Motor Vehicle Arbitration Board. The manufacturer has the responsibility of notifying the consumer of the right to choose, and to provide the forms necessary to start the process. There is no fee required for either dispute mechanism. The choice must be carefully made- choosing one form of resolving the matter precludes resorting to the other option later on.
In either case the arbitration/mediation must take place within 45 days of the manufacturer or VT Arbitration Board receiving notice of the consumer’s request for dispute resolution. During the 45 day period the manufacturer has the legal right to make a final attempt at repairing the vehicle attempt. If the repair is successful to the consumer’s satisfaction, the arbitration process is terminated “without prejudice”- the consumer can restart the arbitration process if the repair fails during the remaining life of the warranty.
It is important to keep in mind that you cannot stop making lease or financing payments because of the defect and unsuccessful attempts to repair it. In fact the law specifically bars a person who has stopped making payments on the vehicle from the remedy available under the statute. Stopping payment could feel like the right thing to do, but in the end it will undermine your legal protections.
The VT Arbitration Board consists of five members and two alternates. By law one member of the board must be a new car dealer in Vermont, one member (and one alternate) must be “knowledgeable in automobile mechanics” and the remaining three must be persons “having no direct involvement in the design, manufacture, distribution, sales or service of motor vehicles or their parts.” The Board conducts a hearing by taking testimony from both sides, along with any relevant documents and testimony from witnesses. The issue for the board to decide is whether the defect substantially impairs the use, market value or safety of the vehicle even after repairs are made by the manufacturer. The board must issue its decision within 30 days of the hearing. The board’s decision can be appealed to the Superior Court, but only for very narrowly defined reasons (including corruption/impartiality/misconduct by the board). Otherwise the decision of the board is binding on all parties involved, and a manufacturer’s failure to comply with a decision constitutes an unfair or deceptive act in violation of Vermont’s Consumer Protection law (which potentially increases penalties against the manufacturer.)
Two forms of relief are available to the consumer who prevails before the board. The consumer has a right to choose to either a) receive a replacement vehicle of a similar make, model and option accessory package or b) return the vehicle to the manufacturer for a refund of the full purchase price. A reasonable allowance for the consumer’s use of the vehicle prior to the first repair attempt can be deducted from the refund. (The statute sets out a formula for determining a “reasonable allowance.”) In the case of a leased vehicle, the manufacturer could be required to either replace the leased vehicle or refund all lease payments made minus a reasonable use allowance. The manufacturer is allowed to put the vehicle back on the market for sale, but must affix to a window a conspicuous notice that the vehicle was previously adjudicated as having a serious defect. Notice that the vehicle was adjudicated as having a serious defect must also appear on the vehicle’s title.
In the next article we’ll discuss a consumer’s rights when the car in question is a “used vehicle.”